Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Dave Gibson: Push for DEC Personnel Increases, Again

Forest Rangers lead search and rescueI listened to NCPR’s Brian Mann recent report about NYS DEC Forest Ranger staffing, and the great pressures on the static ranger staff resulting from so many emergency incidents. DEC Commissioner Seggos’ remarks appeared to be resistant to the need for additional Forest Rangers. He was quoted as saying that the entire DEC staff must rally to help to relieve the pressures on the Rangers and – I would add – on all natural resource professionals at the DEC. In other words, don’t worry members of the media, members of the public, we always do more with less.

In my experience, this Commissioner is very responsive to issues facing him and pays attention to detail. I also know he supports his people in the field. However, it was important for him to hear the support for more DEC Forest Rangers from local government representatives, like Wilmington Town Supervisor and Essex County Board of Supervisors chair Randy Preston. The supervisor was persistent because he knows what we all know: that the DEC Commissioner has no authority to increase the number of rangers, or foresters, or wildlife or fisheries, or operations or campground professionals. The urgent message that DEC natural resource and lands and forests and ranger personnel are at the breaking point must get to the Governor. Local government officials make excellent messengers.

The Commissioner can request, but the Governor’s Budget Division all too often rejects what is requested. The Governor’s Division of the Budget has maintained a flat-lined DEC personnel budget for a long time, and natural resource divisions have particularly been flatlined since the Great Recession – actually before that. Remember what happened to DEC Commissioner Grannis when he too publicly objected to the Budget Division’s devastating cuts to DEC non-personnel budgets in fiscal year 2010-2011. He was fired.

What follows is drawn from a piece I wrote in Adirondack Almanack in 2015 about DEC budgets, updated slightly. Little has changed.

During my first Adirondack conservation meeting, January of 1987, one of the top issues discussed by my board of directors was the pressure the Forest Preserve was under due to the limited State budgets and loss of DEC staff personnel. How were the hundreds of miles of state’s Forest Preserve boundaries to be surveyed and marked? How were the “forever wild” natural resources on the Forest Preserve to be properly cared for by so few foresters and rangers? Someone on my board (I was very much a greenhorn) had invited DEC Lands and Forests Director Robert Bathrick to our meeting to discuss the problem he faced caring for the Forest Preserve, and much else.

My board set the right, collegial tone with the DEC director: that these were shared problems; we all owned an undivided deed to the Forest Preserve, and therefore advocates like us needed good information in order to intelligently weigh in as much as possible – in concert with the DEC. After all, DEC was and still is the public’s custodian for the Forest Preserve, acting in the public’s interest.

Not that we didn’t question DEC’s choice of priorities even 31 years ago. The noted Adirondack guidebook author and advocate Barbara McMartin was among the most active members of my board in challenging DEC in its management and budgetary choices and decisions. Even then, Barbara was questioning why DEC paid so little attention to interesting hiking trails on Wild Forest – where most of the trails were designated and routed purely as snowmobile trails. That particular interest of hers continued throughout the rest of her life. If we want a Forest Preserve worthy of the name, she said, we must support it financially (and pay full taxes on it).

When Barbara McMartin spoke up in 1987, there were about 105 Forest Rangers in the field, not counting supervisors and administrators, to patrol and enforce the laws (and mark the boundaries) on maybe 2.8 million acres of Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve, and maybe half a million acres of State Forests. There were only a few conservation easements back then, maybe 20,000 acres. Let’s say 3.3 million acres in all.

In 2018, there are still only 105 field Forest Rangers to patrol and enforce the laws on 4.832 million acres of Forest Preserve (both Adirondack and Catskill Parks), State Forests, and Private Lands under Conservation Easement, or more than a 30% increase in protected acreage since 1987. About 85% of the increase comes in the form of private lands protected by a Conservation Easement. Easement lands have grown from roughly 20,000 acres in 1987 to approximately 800,000 acres today.

While the land base DEC cares for on our behalf may have grown 30+ %, the staffing has declined more than 25%. In 1995 there were 225 full time staff working for the Division of Lands and Forests – the Division responsible for the Forest Preserve, State Forests, and Easements.  To the best of my knowledge, today there are about 158.

In the Adirondacks, Region 5 in Ray Brook, reports show that Lands and Forests staff are down by two-thirds, Fisheries down by half, and Wildlife down by two-thirds over the past 20 years.

The DEC Division of Operations, which oversees much of the work on the Forest Preserve and on the State Campgrounds had 122 personnel in 1995. Today, that division has about 50, or a drop off of 60%.

Looking at its operational budget, DEC’s budget receives less than $800,000 to oversee, care for and manage 4.8 million acres. That’s about sixteen cents per acre.

Call any DEC office these days about a natural resource problem in your home area and you face the reality behind these statistics. A hard working, skeletal staff attempts to do the job and respond to your concerns. DEC natural resource/forest preserve/forest ranger staffing and operating budgets are in deplorable shape. DEC staff does a remarkable job and, as Commissioner Seggos stressed on NCPR, constantly credit the volunteers, private sector and municipal support they receive in the form of labor and finances to keep up with some of the work load.

Barbara McMartin advocated in 1987 that the public should do two things at once: Thing one is push hard for DEC’s natural resources, wildlife, operations, and lands and forests budgets. Urge the Governor and his Budget Division to increase their personnel.

Thing two: question where DEC places its priorities. To build a single snowmobile community connector trail in the Adirondacks costs the DEC a great deal of its available resources. DEC personnel are reassigned from all over the State to help build them. DEC wants to build a 140-foot steel snowmobile bridge over the Cedar River as one small segment of a long connector, while an existing bridge and trail sits just upriver. These are big expenditures, based upon priorities and choices set by the Governor.

2019 is a time for all groups concerned with the outdoors to come together in a joint lobbying effort with the Governor and the new State Legislature to begin to ramp up DEC Forest Rangers and other personnel responsible for our wondrous natural resources.

Photo: A NYS DEC Forest Ranger leading a search and rescue operation. (DEC Photo)

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David Gibson

Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for nearly 25 years, much of that time as Executive Director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks and then as first Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks.

During Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history.

Currently, Dave is a partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.




26 Responses

  1. Boreasfisher says:

    What else could you ask for? A sober, fair, clear-eyed assessment of the situation, and an appeal to interested parties to participate in a solution for the benefit of all stakeholders.

    Hope others are listening…

  2. Paul says:

    “Call any DEC office these days about a natural resource problem in your home area and you face the reality behind these statistics. A hard working, skeletal staff attempts to do the job and respond to your concerns.”

    This is not the “reality” in the part of region 5 where I live. If I call a ranger I get a response, often in person, usually the next day or faster.

    Dave, we may need additional rangers but this statement is not what I have experienced.

    • Scott says:

      Paul-I think the author was referring to other DEC program staff other than rangers for that sentence…. Rangers work different hours and work weekends and holidays so the rangers should be able to respond sooner.

      I think part of the reason they don’t increase statewide ranger staffing levels as the amount of state land increases and as the amount of year round state land use increases is because rangers do not work for a public protection agency. Rangers are a small part of a large environmental agency and fulfil a small part of the DEC mission. I understand that rangers are unique in NYS by combining being police officers and search and rescue and wildfire suppression first responders, and even though what rangers do is super important and is done by no other agency, at the end of the day rangers are just a small part of DEC. To get DEC to make the ranger division more robust and increase ranger staffing levels to where it should be you have to get DEC to prioritize DEC’s public protection role. I would think Cuomo would see increasing ranger staffing levels to where it should be as a positive thing, but that part is likely a political problem.

      • Paul says:

        Fair enough he does say rangers “and other personnel” in the conclusion. This is also not an Adirondack issue. The DEC covers the state, including the 24 million acres that isn’t the Adirondacks. Maybe rangers have to stop being so good at what they do! One of the ones I have spoken with seems mostly keen on finding illegal pot farms. Maybe let the DEA manage that work?

    • Scott says:

      I don’t mean to diminish the importance of the thousands of tickets rangers issue for illegal ATVing or unsafe snowmobiling or tree cutting or littering etc, because that should be important too, but it seems all that gets attention is rescues. Maybe DEC needs to prioritize the forest protection too.

  3. Michael P Douglass says:

    Great article , Great magazine ! Keep up the great job you do ! Thanks

  4. James Fox Jim Fox says:

    The numbers speak for themselves. Doing more with less is a well worn political line that does not maintain and preserve our precious Adirondack Park that attracts thousands of outdoor first-timers without glitzy Madison Avenue marketing.

    A few years ago a young Italian family came to Stillwater Reservoir after attending a wedding in Syracuse. Asked why they came here, they explained, “Because it’s so remote. Our map shows no roads. In the Alps, no matter where you are, there is always a road within ten kilometers.”

    It’s no wonder the Adirondacks has more search and rescue operations than anywhere else. New York does have the largest park in the lower 48, and therefore lots of visitors that are drawn by remote places.

    “Governor, New York needs more Forest Rangers. The public needs the expertise and resources of our DEC to fully benefit from the expanded treasure that is the Adirondack Park.”

  5. Dan says:

    The sporting community has been calling for a halt to diminishing DEC staff for the past two decades, without any luck. As pointed out in this article, it’s not just Forest Rangers, but biologists, ECO’s and other staff that are a fraction of their former selves. And we sportsmen make a greater financial contribution to DEC’s budget than anyone through the purchase of sporting licenses. Yet there are just a few ECO’s and Rangers per county. The few biologists we have do the best they can.

    Volunteer members of the Conservation Fund Advisement Board (CFAB) can tell you all about it, including the fact that NYC is highly staffed by DEC employees; some who have been tasked with picking up garbage in subways, but most who are needed around shipyards. There’s my sporting license dollars being put to good use!

    The problem with staff in all state agencies isn’t just salaries, it’s the additional cost of benefits (health care, retirement, etc..) which we all know is more costly now than ever.

    As for the bridge across the Cedar River, I believe they feel they’ll get a quicker return on their investment, as it will be a multi-use bridge, not just a snowmobile bridge. I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess there are some local municipality resources that will be used as well. Like it or not, snowmobilers (of which I’m not) are the folks who really open their wallets.

  6. Charlie S says:

    ” Like it or not, snowmobilers are the folks who really open their wallets.”

    Yeah but we all pay taxes Dan and it’s not just about snowmobilers, and the Adirondacks shouldn’t be about who has a fatter wallet. The DEC can come up with the resources to build a connector trail for snowmobiles and they are pushing to build a steel bridge where they’re not supposed to build a bridge according to the NY State Constitution and at the same time they cannot afford more rangers whom evidently are, and have been, sorely needed. They’re supposed to be protectors of our states forests not agents for special interests which is the way they seem to be headed for more than a few moons now.

  7. Paul says:

    With a good ATV and a few drones a ranger can probably cover a lot more acreage than they did in the past. And those tools don’t need workman’s comp and health insurance. Do we really need a “lock tender” in 2018?

    • Boreas says:

      Paul,

      A drone won’t allow you to inspect a trail through foliage, let alone maintain it.

      • Paul says:

        Boreas, that comment was meant to be sarcastic. I guess it didn’t work.

        • Boreas says:

          Sorry – I am sarcastically impaired. But I believe a lot of general surveillance on state lands IS being done by drones now – and will likely increase. But I don’t know who operates the drones. I would hope it isn’t Rangers.

  8. Zephyr says:

    Sell a parking sticker for say $20 a year and ticket every car that doesn’t have one or is parked in a non-designated spot Let the local towns collect the revenue from every ticket they write and there won’t be an enforcement problem. Problem solved. Skip all the cones and nonsense. It will only take a month or two of aggressive enforcement before the Internet spreads the word that either you have a sticker and park in a legitimate spot or you pay a $100 fine. Repeat offenders get towed. Knowledgeable hikers will know these things, will avoid getting fines, and probably are not the sorts who generate silly rescues either. Where I live aggressive parking enforcement nets significant revenue and means that additional people are hired just to enforce the money-making regulations.

    • adkDreamer says:

      @Zephyr. Tickets can be issued if vehicles are parked illegally, without stickers. The vehicles may also be towed, again, without stickers. You write: “…means that additional people are hired”. Apparently the thrust of this article is exactly the opposite. What compels you to make this claim when the author clearly state, unequivocally, that hiring more staff simply has not and more than likely will not happen?

      • Zephyr says:

        I meant that the towns might find it worthwhile to hire more staff to serve the parking tickets, like other tourist places do. You don’t need higher-paid and skilled DEC Rangers or regular police officers to do parking enforcement.

      • Paul says:

        The main gist of the point is well taken. You have to look for some type of alternative funding. To write these article and to keep asking for the same thing that is never forthcoming seems like an unproductive use of ones time.

        The state isn’t going to pay for additional rangers – get used to it.

        • Boreas says:

          Paul,

          We just need to make our wheel a little squeakier to be heard over the downstate background noise.

          • adkDreamer says:

            @Boreas. I am compelled to agree. I do not believe that towns/hamlets/villages would be willing to monitor trailhead parking or take on what appears to be squarely saddled with the DEC – access to the back country. Most don’t have the population or budgets to support even one peace officer let alone add one for ticketing purposes. I won’t even entertain the complexity of the idea on its face.

            • Zephyr says:

              I don’t believe it is either in their mission or their best interests for the DEC to become parking enforcers. If this is a road safety issue as described it should be handled by the people who have jurisdiction over roads and parking, which I presume include the state, local, and county governments. At the same time strict parking enforcement could also help reduce overuse issues on popular trails, thereby helping the DEC fulfill their mission. Though I suspect this will continue to be a problem that nobody wants to take responsibility for. Instead, it is being used as a reason for increasing DEC staffing levels, which is laudable, but shouldn’t be tied to parking and traffic issues.

              • adkDreamer says:

                @Zephyr. Well then, you are free to your entertain beliefs. I do apologize for omitting State Police as I intended to include them along with the DEC. However at State DEC campgrounds, the DEC has complete control over the parking – they may not write the ticket themselves or call for towing in every case (they may) and I am quite sure they may call either DEC Police or State Police when in need. I see little difference between a DEC State campground parking lot and a DEC sanctioned trail parking lot. I believe that the State (whether it be State Police or DEC Police) would trigger a ticket/towing if warranted. As I have mentioned above, having local communities managing this task is either not supported whatsoever (should that task be assigned to the Code Enforcement Officer?) or they have no policing force in place at all. If no direct DEC responsibility exists (trail head parking) then the defacto force would be necessarily the State Police. As I mentioned above the logistics involved in saddling hamlets/villages/towns/county sheriffs with the responsibility appears to patently over complex and essentially absurd.

                • Boreas says:

                  I agree. I don’t think roadsides within the Park should be treated any differently than roadsides outside of the Park. But DEC is probably best equipped (at this point in time) to patrol and ticket the DEC parking areas/lots. In addition, they also are better trained to correlate cars in the lot to entries in the registers.

                  That being said, towns and hamlets are the recipient of tourist dollars and are typically always trying to attract more. I don’t feel State Police should necessarily be parking officers either. Agreements between communities and County Sheriff departments should be worked out to come up with a plan for organized parking and enforcement if they wish to draw more tourists while at the same time ensuring their safety. Whether that involves village staff or county staff can be worked out at each location.

                  • adkDreamer says:

                    Better ask the towns/hamlets/villages first – I am quite sure that there would be plenty of push back, especially in towns/hamlets/villages that have no policing force whatsoever, no expertise, no budget for it etc. It would more than likely present itself to towns/hamlets/villages as another unfunded mandate. Even if approved, it would certainly trigger NYS monetary support at least in part, if not entirely. Therefore, if the state is paying either way, probably best to centralize the effort and preserve the task of enforcement where it lies, already performed by the DEC Police and State Police. Some towns/hamlets/villages may opt in for specific reasoning, however approving a mandamus across counties unilaterally creates yet another layer of bureaucracy which by most empirical measures becomes unwieldy and bloated in costs to maintain.

  9. Zephyr says:

    By the way, as to calling your local DEC office and getting a helpful, knowledgeable staff member, I suspect it is possible, but unlikely in my experience. Instead, I can vividly recall multiple attempts to contact a particular office in the Adirondack region only to never have the phone answered. When I stopped by the door to the office was locked and nobody answered. I happened to run into someone from that office at an event and asked him about it and he said they had stopped answering the phone or greeting the public because they just didn’t have the time to deal with things. Another office, a big important one, was always notoriously unavailable every Friday after about noon–apparently everyone had left the office by then. And, as a reporter at the time I regularly tried to contact them.

  10. Brian Joseph says:

    Cuomo is spending money on the things that are important to him, not forest rangers. He likes to spend money on Puerto RICO, crooked businesses that donate money to him campaign, illegal aliens, filing lawsuits (with no chance of going anywhere) against the president,etc.

  11. Dean D Lefebvre says:

    Use the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages to accomplish this goal and need

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